In the spring of 2018, NFL owners gathered at a swank hotel in Atlanta for their annual meeting. Among the agenda items was a proposal to amend the national anthem policy, which had come under scrutiny after back-to-back seasons of player protests during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The demonstrations had waned significantly from when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest police brutality against people of color, but that wasn’t enough for owners who believed it was bad for business to have then-President Donald Trump leading an attack against the league and its players for their silent protests.
“We can’t have him weaponizing our game,” Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy told me at the time.
The owners then approved a change that saw the policy go from “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem” to “all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.”
The amendment, which also said personnel could stay in the locker room until the conclusion of the anthem if they did not want to stand, was considered a victory for the “stick to sports” crowd, which repeatedly and loudly told us it did not want politics or social issues interrupting its escape from the everyday world.
And yet Saturday in Ames, Iowa, the leader of the stick-to-sports movement was among the Republican presidential candidates attending and seeking to use the Iowa-Iowa State football game to win votes for the 2024 election. It was just another example of the inherent hypocrisy when discussing politics and sports. If the presence of politics is displeasing to those who share Trump’s belief, isn’t it interesting that their voices of concern lack the same volume and reach that typically accompanies player demonstrations?
Trump arrives at the game to a mixture of boos and cheers. pic.twitter.com/EFykqDOoOc
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 9, 2023
Could it be an example of confirmation bias, where we are willing to accept and tolerate the things that we like?
My colleague Scott Dochterman, who was covering the game, spoke to fans outside Jack Trice Stadium. One of them was Brett Johnson, 51, an Ames resident who attended the tailgate of Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
“We have such a unique opportunity in Iowa,” he said. “We get to see these guys. So I definitely want to get involved this presidential cycle because we need a new candidate in there because it hasn’t gone well.”
At least four other candidates attended the tailgates: Trump, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota governor Doug Burger, and business Vivek Ramaswamy.
For me, the discussion of sport and politics is as tiresome as it is redundant. Politics have always been a part of sport, despite the refusal of some to acknowledge it. Race, gender and economics are also inextricably woven into sport. Think Jesse Owens, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Venus Williams, Kathrine Switzer, to name a few examples. Or Title IX, the Rooney Rule and Equal Pay for Equal Play. Or public financing for private stadiums.
They have always been there and will continue to always be there. What’s interesting to me is that the notion of sport being a microcosm of life is now being superseded by the idea of life being a microcosm of sport. It’s a subtle yet significant distinction.
Legislators used to focus on the greater good and treat compromise as something to be celebrated instead of loathed. Nowadays, however, there must be a winner and loser. Selfishness has replaced selflessness, with the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many.
Which brings me back to Ames and a day that represents the very definition of hypocrisy. The two leading candidates, Trump and DeSantis, have railed at times against players bringing societal issues into sport, and yet they have no shame when seeking to exploit a sporting event for personal and political gain.
Sadly, state officials chose to tolerate the potential divisiveness of welcoming the candidates when a more powerful gesture would have been to keep the focus on the game. Instead of keeping politics outside the stadium, DeSantis is the guest of Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, and Trump has a suite because of his stature as a former president.
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) September 9, 2023
It’s likely neither has any real interest in the game. I’d be shocked if either could identify one of the coaches or starting quarterbacks without being told in advance who they are. But political protocol is that you pound the flesh and kiss the babies. And you attend one of the state’s largest sporting events ahead of the country’s first nominating caucus, even if it illuminates the contradiction.
Although others might not be willing to accept a sporting world that is coated in politics, I am neutral on it because it has always been there and only appears to be strengthening its grip. We have seen boycotts in the Olympics, the NFL move a Super Bowl out of Arizona because of its refusal to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday, and Major League Baseball pull its All-Star Game from Atlanta over a restrictive new voting law. More recently, foreign governments such as Saudi Arabia are buying into leagues and teams.
Days like today are minor annoyances we have to live with, and thankfully some members of the younger generation are approaching it with the right perspective. Dochterman tells the story of a pre-teen and his father attending the DeSantis tailgate, which had maybe 100 supporters holding signs and chanting, “We want Ron!”
The dad turned to his son and said, “Isaac, are you going to say hi?” The son turned and said, “No, I’m going to get water.”
— The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman contributed to this report.
(Former President Donald Trump holds up a hamburger during a tailgating event before the Iowa-Iowa State game: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)